Oxford philosopher talks bioethics in London

Bioethicist Julian Savulescu is known for his writing and lectures on the ethics of genetic modification. He's in London, Ont. for a panel discussion on human advancement and the ethics of technologies like CRISPR.

World-renowned bioethicist Julian Savulescu is in town to discuss the ethics of gene modification

Philosophers and bioethicists Julian Savulescu (right) and Anthony Skelton (middle) in conversation with Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre (far left). (Richard Raycraft/CBC News)

Should people be allowed to custom design their unborn children? Should we bring back the woolly mammoth? Or should the wealthy be able to purchase biological enhancements for themselves?

Advances in genetics and biology are taking us into uncharted ethical territory, and bioethicists are philosophers who try to improve our understanding of these issues and questions.

Bioethicist and Oxford professor Julian Savulescu appears in London, Ont. tonight for a panel on human enhancement. Western University moral philosopher Anthony Skelton is the moderator.

Savulescu and Skelton appeared on Afternoon Drive to talk gene-editing with host Chris dela Torre.

Chris dela Torre: First of all, Anthony, what are the fundamental issues that will be at the heart of the talk tonight?

Anthony Skelton: We're going to be focusing on gene editing, and in particular a new technology called CRISPR, which allows us to make precise cuts to genetic material. That allows us first of all to figure out what those genes do, and also maybe eventually cure various types of diseases — ones we know which are related to single genes like cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease in embryos that carry it.

CDT: Right, CRISPR is being touted as a real potential game-changer. But at what point should morality come into play when it comes to the advances of science, Julian?

Julian Savulescu: Morality ultimately has to make a decision about how we use new technologies, and the limits of them. Many people have said that it's too early to try CRISPR in human embryos with serious disorders like cystic fibrosis. However, it is being trialed already as a way of modifying immune cells in people with cancer or with HIV. And in one study that's being proposed in China they aim to remove human papilloma virus from the cells of women who have been infected but have not yet developed cervical cancer.

Those sorts of experiments are ones where you have to evaluate the risks of, for example, a severe immune reaction from the gene editing therapy versus the benefits of trying to cure cancer itself. But when it comes to the issue of embryos, from my view, as the science progresses we will then start to look at embryos that have lethal conditions.

So for example I was asked to comment on a case that our fertility service in Oxford is dealing with where a couple had genetic testing for a very severe genetic disorder which causes cancer. And they transferred one healthy embryo and it didn't take and they only have one embryo left that would develop cancer. And they want to transfer that embryo because it's their last chance to have their own child.

Now, I think that is ethical. Many laws prevent the transfer of affected embryos, but this is a case where we might consider gene editing. The couple only have one embryo left, and the child will certainly develop cancer. At some point the benefits outweigh the costs of trying this new, potentially and ultimately curative therapy, because it cures the condition at the very earliest stage – the stage at which there's just one cell. In every cell subsequently in the baby's body the gene will be corrected. So at some point we'll take that step I'm sure.
(iStock/Getty Images)

CDT: It's often said that government regulation can't keep up with advances in science and technology. How much of a problem is that in this day and age?

AS: It's always going to be an issue when we discover new technologies about how we distribute them, who has access to them, are they available on the open market, do governments want to fund them. 

It's not clear that it raises a new problem, but it's one that given its potential impact on humanity and future generations, we want to get all stakeholders who are involved or impacted at the table discussing it.

In Canada at the moment gene editing is not permitted on embryos, whether it's for basic research purposes or for therapy. So we're going to start to ask those questions about whether that's the right way to go so we can figure out what the ethical issues are, what we think is permissible, and what we want to spend our money on in terms of medical technology, before we start to make incremental changes in the law.

JS: The situation is changing now that China is becoming a major player in this research. A lot of the cutting-edge research in this area is coming out of China in the last 10 years or so. And what took two years to improve in terms of our gene therapy trial in the U.S. took two hours in China. So they don't have the same kinds of registrations and restraints.

They also see the enormous potential of this biological research. For example, they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to identify the genes for intelligence. So not only trying to cure diseases but trying to make people better than normal.

CDT: But the idea of using embryos for science or for gene editing is just so controversial for people. How confident are you that North American governments or the government in the UK will move closer to China in terms of being able to take those risks?

JS: I think that's where you need a robust ethical process. For example, I think Canada's laws are completely irrational. I think you need at this point to prevent children from being born through rogue experiments, but I also think you need to take a realistic perspective. And in a country that has legal abortion, using gene editing for research purposes with the destruction of embryos afterwards is no different than abortion or IVF resulting in embryo destruction. So I can't see any good reasons to prevent gene editing research on embryos.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.